Free and fair elections: how does Fiji measure up?
An elections expert looks at international measures of fair elections as concerns continue to be raised about the elections run up in Fiji.
As Fiji heads towards its first general election in nearly eight years, questions continue to be raised about whether the polls will be free and fair.
Community groups, human rights watchdogs and political parties in Fiji are among those raising concerns and they have also criticised Australia and New Zealand for being too quick to lift sanctions on the country.
So are there in fact internationally accepted measures for free and fair elections and how does Fiji measure up?
Sally Round spoke to an international elections and constitutional expert, Andrew Ladley.
DR ANDREW LADLEY: There's a lot of indicators but I think that they boil down to three. The first is about the administration of elections -whether it's effective, impartial, whether there's proper redress so that people can complain and get things fixed. So the first relates to who's administering the elections and the institutions including the courts and various other redress bodies. The second set of indicators are all about the rights and the legal framework for voting - universal suffrage, freedom of expression, candidates. How clear and how inclusive are those and non-discriminatory? And there's a whole detail of standards, but that's the second category. The third is about the conditions in which elections are held in the run-up to elections and of course on election day and the whole period that follows it. This is all about how equitable it is and some major indicators about fear, coercion and violence and some equally important but less dramatic indicators about the conditions in which people can participate and so on.
SALLY ROUND: How does the pre-election period rate in importance when measuring whether an election is free and fair, compared to what actually happens on election day?
AL: Lots of international observer groups get this wrong and they concentrate on what happens on election day and say 'oh that looks a bit of alright' and they don't in fact look at elections as a whole process and that can lead, I think, to substantial errors especially by observation bodies. There's been some quite dramatic ones recently. The run-up is important because if you aren't confident about the administration and about all the other things - impartiality and redress, if you aren't confident about the rights and the legal framework, if you aren't confident about the conditions, if there's violence and various other things, then that can have a substantial effect on what happens on the day.
SR: So how is Fiji measuring up?
AL: Well there appears to be, of those three, there's an administration which is supposed to be established and we've yet to know whether it's going to be effective and fully impartial and all those details, and how effective will be the redress. The full rights and legal framework and all of that is emerging but I don't think it's absolutely clear yet, and the conditions appear to be currently, at least, peaceful but the whole question of that run-up, about freedom of expression and the rights to be able to put your proposals out there and the freedom of campaigning and the absence of fear and so on, that's starting to be an interesting point to look at too. It's not just the day, it's that whole run-up. So Fiji is on the road but one wouldn't say yet that there's no concerns.
SR: The latest debate in Fiji is over the Attorney-General and Minister of Elections being behind the regime-backed party. How problematic is this?
AL: Well it goes to a couple of those key points, I think. One of the key aspects is that elections are not just about shall we say objective criteria. They're about parties all feeling that they belong and that they also have a stake in it, and that the thing's going to be done fairly. And your concern is if one side, and in this case a kingpin, a key advisor on the regime side - a non-democratic regime - is controlling too many aspects that it both has the look and the possible feel of being biased. That's because of the fear that the system may be stacked in the interests of one party. And it's because of nervousness about things like whether resources, state resources, will be used in some way to favour incumbents or at least the party that's about to be formed. Part of all of this is getting everybody to believe that things are effective, impartial and everybody concerned has a responsibility to play a role in ensuring that that not only is, but looks to be impartial, neutral and so on, in terms of the electoral machinery. So the longer these concerns are allowed to go on not being addressed, the more the risk that various parties will feel that the framework doesn't look and doesn't act as if it's impartial, especially when you're moving out of a long period of no elections. You want everything to have as many people as possible on all sides being confident in the neutral, impartial administration and framework of the electoral process. I think all three of those categories of principles are equally important but the first is that you don't want your electoral machinery, and your electoral process and system to look as if it's being biased in favour of incumbents or anyone else, any racial group, any ethnic group, as are sometimes the big concerns in other elections. Part of getting everything to go smoothly is to recognise that having the acceptance of all parties is an absolutely crucial part of a free and fair election because if they all believe in it, then of course they're much more likely to participate in it freely and fairly and or course to accept the results.
SR: So should the Attorney-General then not be involved in a party? Other politicians in other countries are involved in parties and involved in elections.
AL: Yes, exactly, they are. How precisely this is played out is obviously up to him and his party and so on. I would just stress the principle. The administration of elections should be impartial and as far as possible should not be subject to either the actuality or the perception that it's being biased in favour of incumbents or anyone else.
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